The Sweet of the Moment: Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You?
Written By Sierra Bamsey, NASM Certified Nutrition Specialist (Director of Marketing & Communications for the YMCA of Superior California)
Splenda, Stevia, Sweet'n'low... with what feels like endless options for low calorie sweeteners these days, you may be asking- what are they? Are they bad for me? Are there any hidden side effects?
Regular table sugar can have negative effects on your health if consumed in excess- including diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and increased risk of heart disease. Because of these negative effects, health organizations like the FDA recommend that Americans cut down on sugar consumption.
Many people are now turning to artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners, to sweeten the food they eat. Most artificial sweeteners sweeten food at 200-600x the amount of regular sugar, so you do not need to use nearly as much to get the same sweet flavor in your food. They contain little to no calories, and come from either plant-based or man-made compounds. Artificial Sweeteners have been given a bad name in recent years due to multiple studies exploring the relationships with various health risks. But is the potential health risk worth the switch back to regular sugar? What are Artificial Sweeteners even made of?
Although artificial sweeteners are generally put into a single category, the molecular makeup of each type of sweetener varies greatly. There are a few main types, or brands of artificial sweeteners:
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet/Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Saccharin (Sweet'n'low)
With most artificial sweeteners, the downside is taste, as it is difficult to exactly match the taste of real sugar, and non-nutritive sweeteners tend to have an aftertaste or feel like a “coating” on the tongue.
How Much Can I Eat?
With all of these studies behind artificial sweeteners, you may be wondering, how much can I eat in a day without adverse side effects? This number is regulated by the FDA, and is called Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI. It is the maximum amount of a chemical that can be ingested every single day that does not pose a health risk. The ADI for each artificial sweetener is different. Let’s take a look at some of these most popular artificial sweeteners.
- Aspartame: The hesitance in consumption of aspartame began when a 1996 study claimed that there could be a link between rise in brain tumors and the recent introduction of aspartame into our food. However, it is important to note that it was found that this link was primarily in ages 55 and over, a group that didn't consume high levels of diet soda at the time, and that this rise in brain tumors was found to have began before the introduction of aspartame into the
market. The American Cancer Society currently notes that there is currently no link between aspartame and cancer (2). The FDA recommends an ADI for Aspartame of 40 mg/kg/day, which is equal to about 14-20 cans of Diet Coke daily.
- Sucralose: (or the commercial name, Splenda) is 600x the sweetness of sugar, and like its fellow artificial sweeteners, was given a bad name due to the belief that it could raise insulin levels and/or induce a glucose intolerance. In this study, it was shown that there was no effect on insulin or glucose levels, or on immune function in both healthy individuals and people with diabetes. So Splenda lovers, rejoice! According to the FDA, you can consume Splenda without risk of adverse side effects up to 5mg/kg/day (equal to 31 packets of Splenda).
- Saccharin: As one of the oldest artificial sweeteners around (discovered in 1879 at Johns Hopkins University) Saccharin is approved by the United States FDA, but is banned in several other countries. It is not normally found in food, but is found in the “Sweet’n’low” packets, commonly seen in US restaurants. In the 1970’s a study on rats showed a link between the consumption of saccharin and bladder cancer. However, due to the lack of solid evidence in human studies (3), Saccharin is currently classified by the FDA as non-cancerous to humans. The ADI for Saccharin is 5 mg/kg/day, which translates to about 8-10 packets of Sweet’n’low per day.
- Stevia: also called “stevia leaf extract” is the newest introduced artificial sweetener on the market today. It is made of steviol glycosides, and is considered the most natural sweetener, due to the fact that it’s derived from the stevia plant. However, it is important to note that some stevia products on the market such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, don’t contain whole stevia leaf extract, and instead are sweetened with refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside (Reb-a), sometimes mixed with erythritol. A study in 2019 claimed a possible effect on the microbiome, and also suggested that artificial sweeteners such as Stevia could induce metabolic disorders or glucose intolerance. While overall, refined stevia extract has been heavily researched and is generally considered safe, the research on raw and whole leaf extract is lacking. The suggested ADI for Stevia is 4 mg/kg/day, which is equal to about 40 packets of stevia per day.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
There have been countless studies into the possible side effects of artificial sweeteners, and even more generalized claims by the public. The FDA has approved all of the listed artificial sweeteners above, while suggesting caution in substituting all sugary foods for artificial sweeteners.
There are several studies correlating in the issue of the effect of non-nutritive sweeteners on weight gain, and increased appetite. This is a controversial topic in the scientific community. Studies have repeatedly shown correlation between an increase in weight gain and how much artificial sweetener someone consumes. However, this could also be due to something called “reverse causality”, that the types of people that seek out “diet” foods, or foods with non- nutritive sweeteners, tend to also be obese or suffer from weight gain. The use of artificial sweeteners as a substitute for sugar can generally be used for weight loss, as they are significantly lower in calories.
The sensationalized claim that artificial sweeteners are carcinogenic is another concern that is widely known. There have been many studies done on the link between various types of artificial sweeteners, and a possible link to different types of cancers. Including the studies listed above, and many more. The National Cancer Society states that there has not been enough
evidence to show a clear link between artificial sweeteners and cancer.
Overall, it is not completely clear whether or not artificial sweeteners are 100% free of any negative side effects. However, the FDA and many other health organizations have cleared artificial sweeteners for safe use, and they can have many benefits, including weight loss, dental health, and blood sugar control. Artificial Sweeteners are overall safe for general consumption, however use caution when consuming them, and always do what's best for you and your body!